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November 27, 1998


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The Rediff Interview/Digvijay Singh

'When people are getting power for the first time, there is bound to be some kind of misuse'

Digvijay Singh T he small board on the giant gate read: Chief Minister daure par hai (the chief minister is on tour). After tracking him for nearly a week and reading that same message at the CM's entrance day in and day out, the Rediff team was finally able to get an appointment with Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh at his impressive residence.

Past three security sentries, a metal detector and after declaring the pen knife in our possession, we made our way through the lush lawns of the CM's house into a stately room. A few metres from what looked like a paper shredder, sat Digvijay Singh, in soft conversation with a visitor. Occupying another set of chairs were enthusiastic well-wishers, discussing party positions in the state.

Perceived as the greatest political survivor in the Congress party -- perhaps second only to former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao -- the chief minister looked at complete ease, in spite of a predicted poor showing by the Exit Poll. Back from Raghogarh, his constituency, Singh was now in Bhopal to take stock of the emerging political equation. With an estimated 110 seats, it could be a worrying prospect for other Congress workers in the state but the CM is not speculating till the results are declared.

"Oh, women swoon over him," a former IAS officer had earlier said of the 50ish, engineer turned politician. Dressed in a casual kurta and a black waistcoat, Singh was pleasant and friendly. "I know you are trying to get in touch with me. Would you like some tea or coffee?" he asked politely before getting into the thick of an interview at the end of a long day.

Uncertain of his chances of retaining power in the state, many believe even if Singh fails at the hustings, he has age on his side. "After a long time MP had a modern CM. He came with a lot of promise and tremendous high expectations," says former state chief secretary M N Buch, chairman of the National Centre for Human Settlements and Environment.

Known for his political savvy that has been effective in defusing an acrimonious opposition, Singh is largely seen as an able and efficient CM. However, his political acumen, has not been able to shield him from the fire of active criticism. In the last five years, nothing has brought him more criticism than the implementation of the Panchayati Raj programme and the corruption that allegedly existed within his cabinet.

"Panchayati Raj has resulted in the decentralisation of corruption," says former and prospective BJP chief minister Sunderlal Patwa. The Opposition is of the opinion that Singh was not popular himself, but gave a popular slogan in Panchayati Raj. "Digvijay Singh was the question, the BJP, the answer," adds the BJP spokesperson Prabhat Jha. Yet, certain observers believe Singh has shown a commitment towards empowering the weakest through Panchayati Raj. That though he was unable to contain corruption among his ministers, he went ahead with the Panchayati experiment in the face of resistance.

Considered by some as one of the two best chief ministers in the country (other being his Andhra Pradesh counterpart Nara Chandrababu Naidu), the results of Digvijay Singh's greatest political battle will be declared tomorrow. If 'Diggi Raja' -- who also has the valued support of Congress president Sonia Gandhi -- pulls through in the electoral battle of Madhya Pradesh, he will be the Congress's newest hero. If he doesn't, he says he won't hold any party position for the next ten years. "After all, the buck stops here," he confirms purposefully, in an interview with Archana Masih and Vaihayasi Daniel.

In a conversation broken only once -- when he removed the sacred red thread from his wrist and asked an aide to throw it in a well -- Madhya Pradesh's chief minister spoke a bit of his past, present and future on the eve of the assembly results.

How are you feeling right now, just hours from election results that could go against you?

It's been a close election, and I think we can make it. Exit Polls are very close -- 40 per cent, 42 per cent votes for the Congress and the BJP -- and I think they have only done it in 60 to 70 constituencies.

The BJP is slated to win 169 seats, according to the exit polls?

Yes, but they did the Exit Polls in 60 seats -- and that is only a projection. And in a state like Madhya Pradesh one per cent margin can swing either way and make a difference to the polls.

The Indore Satta Bazaar, which is supposed to be very accurate and reliable in Madhya Pradesh, has predicted 160 seats for the BJP and 140 seats for the Congress...

That's very close. See, a one per cent swing will make the difference.

In favour of the Congress...?

Either way. I am a born optimist (laughs). That's how I survived.

Talking about survival, in these turbulent times in politics it is an achievement in itself that you have completed a full term in office.


So what's the secret of your survival?

Digvijay Singh Well! The love and affection of my friends and foes (laughs), and blessings of god above.

We have been here ten days and have been speaking to your admirers and detractors. We hear different things about the party, but very good things about you as a person. How would you describe yourself, and as chief minister how would you assess yourself?

As a person who could have done better (laughs).

Five years reduced to just three words. (he laughs). Why do you say -- done better?

I could have performed better.

You have some direction in mind?

My five years did have a definite direction. Decentralisation -- more power to the people. Empowerment of women and dalits. I think direction was there.

Where would you ideally like to go and where would you have liked to go?

Well! Things would be better if the organisation -- sort of -- and the government worked together. More closely.

Organisation meaning?

Organisation means the Madhya Pradesh Congress Committee.

Another thing your detractors criticise you about is the implementation of the Panchayati Raj. It is understood that this decentralisation has taken corruption to the lower levels.

Ahh... People are there. When you empower people. When they are getting power for the first time, then there is bound to be some kind of misuse of power. When power is being misused in Delhi, Bhopal -- why shouldn't power be misused in the gram panchayat. So initially this has been there. Whenever you make a change, there are bound to be teething problems. And some of them were corrupt. Action has been taken against them. Some have done exceedingly well also.

I am held responsible. I cannot be held responsible if there is corruption at the panchayat level. It's those people. I have given them the powers which they have the constitutional right to get. What I have done is, I have faithfully implemented the constitutional provisions in the local bodies. I can't be blamed for that.

But now that it has already started, is there anything you have in mind to streamline the process. Weeding out corruption is a very big task in itself.

Yes! This is what we are saying in our election manifesto. We have provided for the right to recall and at the local bodies that itself would help in controlling malpractice and corruption.

Another thing. A very curious question that comes to mind. In a state like Madhya Pradesh which has such strong heavyweights of the Congress party, how easy or difficult is it to operate with such big names?

It is very easy. In fact, if I had been a leader I would have problems. Because I act as a worker, a very humble worker, I have no problems with the leaders. There were no ego clashes with me. No ego problems. They are all very senior, big leaders.

What about differences of opinion...

In fact, there were differences of opinion. But I did not rub it in. I kept my stand.

ub it in -- you are talking about yourself or the other person?

The other person. We had our differences, but I did not let that come as something in between the leader and myself. All in all we had a very fine relationship.

'Our election promises will be our top priority'

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